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North Carolina Department of Environment Quality

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Marine Fisheries - Striped Bass AO

Marine Fisheries

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ATLANTIC STRIPED BASS, Morone saxatilis

8-point rule

Striped bass

Life History

Atlantic striped bass (Morone saxatilis) are an estuarine dependent species found from the lower St. Lawrence River in Canada to the east coast of Florida. The only stocks considered migratory are the stocks from Maine to the Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River in North Carolina. These migratory stocks are under the management authority of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Striped bass typically spend most of their adult life in coastal estuaries and the nearshore ocean, migrating north in the summer and south in the winter, then ascending their native rivers each spring to spawn (anadromous).

Mature females (age 6 and older for Chesapeake Bay stock, age 3 and older for the Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River stock) produce large quantities of eggs which are broadcast into riverine spawning areas and fertilized by mature males (age 2 and older). Fertilized eggs drift with the downstream currents and continue to develop through a larval stage for several days, eventually arriving in river deltas and the inland portions of coastal sounds and estuaries where they mature into juveniles. Striped bass eggs spawned in the Roanoke River need flowing current to stay suspended or they will sink to the river bottom, get covered with silt and suffocate. Environmental conditions including temperature, rainfall and river flows during the spring spawning run, are the most important factors in determining the number of juveniles produced annually.

Striped bass are a long-lived species, reaching at least 30 years of age, and can grow quite large. The largest fish recorded in recent years was captured in the early 1990s during the Maryland spawning area survey and weighed over 90 pounds. The majority of striped bass caught in the ocean during the winter in North Carolina are 9 to 15 years old and weigh 20 to 25 pounds. Females grow larger than males and are more migratory than males. Most of the coastal migratory stock consist of females that originate from the Chesapeake Bay but also includes significant contributions from the spawning stocks of the Hudson and Delaware rivers, with the Albemarle/Roanoke stock contributing only minimally to the coastal migratory stock. Scientists have long term tagging programs dating back over 30 years, and have a good understanding of striped bass migrations.

Striped bass

Striped bass can form large schools and are voracious, feeding on whatever fishes are seasonally and geographically available and on a wide variety of invertebrates. In general, oily fish such as menhaden, herrings, and shads are very important prey, but they will also readily eat spot, croaker, American eel, sand lance, smelt, squid, mackerel and various crustaceans including blue crab and lobster.

Fisheries

Commercial harvest is currently constrained by a 360,360 pound annual quota and a 28 inch minimum total length size limit. There is no harvest allowed in federal waters (3 to 200 miles from shore). The quota is split evenly between three gears: ocean beach seine, ocean gill net and ocean trawl. Quota overages for a gear are taken away from that gear during the next year. Atlantic striped bass overwinter in the ocean waters off northern North Carolina and southern Virginia, from about Oregon Inlet north to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, from December through February; therefore, the quota year is set from December 1 through November 30 each year. Due to the relatively small individual gear quota and the ability to harvest tens of thousands of pounds in a single day, specific gear overages occasionally occur, but the overall quota is rarely exceeded. Starting in the 2008-2009 season, shifting migratory patterns and decreasing stock abundance led to less availability of fish in North Carolina state territorial waters (0 to 3 miles from shore). Since 2012-2013, there have been no striped bass landed in North Carolina from the Atlantic Ocean because overwintering schools have been as much as 40 miles offshore and/or have remained north in Virginia waters. Commercial landings over the past 10 years have averaged 144,396 pounds (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1

Figure 2

Recreational harvest is constrained by a one fish per person daily possession limit and a 28 inch minimum total length size limit. Often when striped bass are inside state territorial waters they form large schools that are easily accessed by anglers, and harvest can be significant and releases even larger. During the past 10 years, recreational harvest peaked in 2011 at 110,150 fish (2,042,981 pounds). There has been no recreational harvest in the ocean since January 2011 (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Management

Atlantic striped bass is managed through Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass (February 2003) and its subsequent addenda (Addendum I through IV). The management program includes target and threshold biological reference points and sets regulations aimed at achieving the targets.

In response to the 2013 benchmark assessment results which indicated a steady decline in spawning stock biomass (the number of mature females in the stock), the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board approved Addendum IV in October 2014 to establish new fishing mortality reference points (fishing mortality target and threshold). To reduce fishing mortality to a level at or below the new target, the coastal states were required to implement a 25 percent harvest reduction from 2013 levels, while Chesapeake Bay states/jurisdictions were required to implement a 20.5 percent harvest reduction from 2012 levels. Based on the results of the 2016 Atlantic striped bass stock assessment, the implementation of Addendum IV successfully reduced fishing mortality to a more sustainable level, though spawning stock biomass is still in decline.

Given the Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River striped bass stock contributes minimally to the coastwide complex when compared to the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware and Hudson stocks, Addendum IV deferred management of this stock to the State of North Carolina using Board-approved stock-specific biological reference points. These stock-specific reference points result in a separate quota set to maintain fishing mortality for the Albemarle/Roanoke stock at its target level.

Stock Overview

  • Assessment: Yes
  • Terminal Year of Last Assessment: 2015
    • Overfishing: No
    • Overfished: No

The 2016 Atlantic striped bass stock assessment update estimates the female spawning stock biomass at 129 million pounds in 2015, above the target of 127 million pounds. However, female spawning stock biomass has continued to decline since the peak in 2004. Therefore, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission currently has Atlantic striped bass listed as concern with results from a 2017 stock assessment update expected by this fall. Total fishing mortality from the 2016 assessment was estimated at 0.16, a value below both the threshold and target levels (0.22 and 0.18, respectively). Total removals for 2015 were estimated at 3.02 million fish.

Despite recent declines in spawning stock biomass, the stock is still well above the spawning stock biomass level observed during the moratorium that was in place in the mid to late 1980s. Atlantic striped bass experienced a period of strong recruitment (number of age-1 fish entering the population) from 1993 to 2004, followed by a period of lower recruitment from 2005 to 2011 (although not as low as the 1980s stock collapse). Recruitment of the 2011 year-class was high, but was followed by the second lowest recruitment estimate on record going back to 1982. More recently, in 2015, recruitment was again high and estimated at 123 million age-1 fish (the 2014 year class), the seventh highest recruitment estimate on record.

Research Needs

Research needs include continuing the collection of paired scale and otolith (ear bone) samples, particularly from larger striped bass, to facilitate the development of otolith-based age-length keys for scale-otolith conversion matrices; developing a refined and cost-efficient, fisheries-independent coastal population index for striped bass stocks; and developing a spatially and temporally explicit catch-at-age model incorporating tag based movement information.

Links

Management Agencies

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

Fishery Management Plans, Amendments, Revisions and Supplements

North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries

Stock Assessment Reports

Link to stock assessment coming

Contacts

For more information, contact Charlton Godwin at Charlton.Godwin@ncdenr.gov or 252-264-3911

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N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries • 3441 Arendell Street • Morehead City, NC 28557 • 252-726-7021 or 800-682-2632

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